UC HEALTH LINE: Infection, Skin Damage Can Sideline Sports Players
CINCINNATI—Athlete’s foot, warts or the recurring cold sore can seem like small nuisances, but if they pop up before a big game, they can have serious consequences for athletes.
Brian Adams, MD, is a University of Cincinnati associate professor and a dermatologist with UC Physicians specializing in sports dermatology, a concentration that puts him in front of every boil, blister and burn encountered by athletes who visit his sports dermatology clinic.
Adams also is responsible for the long-term skin care of many professional female tennis players, part of his duties as the official dermatologist for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
He says the two biggest issues for all sports players are infection and sun damage.
“Thanks to a lot of skin-to-skin contact and sharing of equipment, infections are a major issue with athletes,” he says. “There have been major epidemics at the collegiate, high school and professional levels that have really sidelined athletes considerably, even put some in the hospital.”
Adams has seen teams rattled and seasons disrupted by skin infections, which hit athletes in mainly three types: Bacterial, fungal and viral.
He says the most common bacterial infection is caused by staph, a bacterium that takes on different characteristics depending on where it’s found on the body.
Wrestlers in particular suffer from the fungal infection tinea corpus, more commonly known as ringworm. In one study, Adams found 25 percent of a high school wrestling team had the fungus without knowing it.
Like wrestling, football and basketball can result in a high amount of skin-to-skin contact, paving the way for transfer of viral infections like molluscum contagiosum, an easily transmitted skin infection.
“Each of these in their own little way can really disrupt an athlete’s participation,” says Adams.
If caught before a game, athletes risk disqualification because of infections. Worse yet, an athlete may not find out about an infection before playing and could easily spread it to teammates, competitors, even trainers and coaches. Infections not only lower the skin’s natural ability to block out germs and viruses, but they can lead to super-infections that cause long-term problems.
To counter these risks, Adams urges players to avoid sharing equipment and keep their personal items separate from others.
“At all levels, whether in professional, collegiate or high school athletics, it’s amazing how much sharing goes on of equipment and towels. It’s stunning,” he says.
Adams also wants players to cover up during practice—but not with the same old socks or T-shirt.
He says today’s athletic materials are increasingly lightweight, anti-bacterial and have greater ability to wick away moisture and sweat from your skin, resulting in fewer opportunities for infections to take hold.
“No athlete of any sort should be wearing cotton anything in 2009,” he says. “Not only does it create a warm, moist area, which is perfect for all those microorganisms, it makes you more likely to have blisters.”
These new athletic materials also help with another great risk to athletes: sun protection.
“It breaks my heart when runners go out without their shirts on,” says Adams. “It’s a common thing, but they are getting ultraviolet rays that they didn’t need to get.”
In his work with the WTA, Adams says older players have “amazingly sun damaged skin” from years of playing outside without proper protection. But it doesn’t have to be the same for the up-and-coming players, he says.
“We live in an era now where there is sun-protective clothing. There is clothing that you can wear that is lightweight, breathable—you’re not going to overheat,” he says. “This goes for any athlete, from weekend warriors to professionals. The more skin that you can cover with lightweight, breathable, UV-protective clothing, the better.”
To schedule an appointment with Adams or another UC Physicians dermatologist, call 475-7630.
For more information on skin infection and sun damage, visit netwellness.org, a collaborative health-information Web site staffed by Ohio physicians, nurses and allied health professionals.